Swarm Manufacturing: Robotic 3D Printers Divide and Conquer

Industry 4.0 and Internet of Things technologies led to the development of swarm robots and additive manufacturing. Now, the two are coming together in a marriage that could change supply chains and manufacturing globally and, some researchers claim, could reach outer space.

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Image credit: AMBOTS

Swarm manufacturing is a form of distributed manufacturing, where separate factories use multiple robots to build components of a product that can be assembled to create the desired end goods. These factories can fabricate multiple types of products, and they can be part of a local supply chain, cutting overall manufacturing costs.

A first step on the path to swarm manufacturing is cooperative 3D printing (C3DP). C3DP is a chunk-based fabrication method, meaning that each product or part is divided into “chunks,” which are then assigned to separate mobile 3D printing robots. When each separate chunk is produced, another robot will assemble and fuse the parts together to complete the fabrication process.

Dividing the fabrication allows a product to be produced more quickly and can alleviate the likelihood of anomalies during production. The robots work in a defined space, so they don’t overlap or waste time moving around the object they fabricate.

Swarm manufacturing factories are flexible, too. The 3D printing robots can be reprogrammed to meet changing customer demands or to create new products. That enables the shift from mass production to customized or limited product runs. It also supports the establishment of general-purpose factories that can produce an array of different products, opening doors for smaller companies to share fabrication facilities.

Strength in Numbers

Arkansas startup AMBOTS is developing a swarm manufacturing robotic solution. The startup is a spinoff from the AM3 Lab at the University of Arkansas’ Department of Mechanical Engineering. The company has created small autonomous robots that sit on a fabricated, raised, tile floor. Each AMBOT is assigned a workspace and its design chunk. Engineers submit the electronic design file, determine the item’s chunks, and divvy up the production of those chunks across multiple robots. In one case, AMBOTS claims the swarm shaved about two hours off the single-bot 3D fabrication process, a 25 percent time savings.

AMBOTS is developing robot “crew” members to make up the swarm, including a robot that can deposit and join materials for 3D printing and a pick-and-place robot for assembly. Other bots will be able to handle additional tasks, such as lay tape, print with ink or adhesives, tighten screws, and more.

Large-scale Robots for Large-scale Projects

To further expand the capabilities of swarm manufacturing, researchers at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering are working to develop large, roving, autonomous 3D printing robots that operate as a collaborative team. The concept, called collective additive manufacturing (CAM), will enable a cluster of robotic 3D printers equipped with machine learning, computer vision, and other artificial intelligence technologies to tackle large-scale projects.

These machines—large robotic arms on mobile platforms—could be dispatched to repair failing infrastructure, such as tunnels and bridges. They can also work on construction sites, in disaster zones, deep in the ocean, and even in outer space or on the moon.

To effectively meet the full potential of CAM, researchers have to overcome some inherent challenges. The robots will have to be aware of their surroundings and other robots. They must be able to print structures based on predetermined, virtual designs. They need the ability to assess their progress in real-time and make adjustments to those designs when required by the terrain, production disruptions, or material flaws.

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